Apparently, life doesn’t end when you get married.
Cassie Scot is called away from her daughter’s first birthday party when a young couple is found frozen to death in their living room. The couple ran a daycare out of their home, making preschoolers the key witnesses and even the prime suspects.
The investigation takes a dangerous turn when a deputy is attacked by a hell hound, a creature nobody has seen in hundreds of years. Then the mist rolls in, bringing with it the cold. Cassie has to think fast to survive, and her actions cause a rift between her and her husband.
No, life doesn’t end after marriage. All hell can break loose at any time.
Apparently, life doesn’t end when you get married. I suppose that’s obvious, but it’s hard to tell from the way Happily Ever After stories dominate our culture. At any rate, marriage seemed like such a solid conclusion to the stories I had to tell that I ended my first four memoirs the day I married Evan Blackwood.
If only I’d known then that all hell was about to break loose.
My name is Cassandra Morgan Ursula Margaret Blackwood, and if you think that’s a mouthful, go ahead and call me Cassie. Most of my friends still do, although I no longer feel unworthy of the full appellation.
To be fair to my younger self, eager to share her journey of self-discovery with the world in the wake of some powerful events, things were quiet for almost two years. More happened to my two best friends than to me during that time. Oh sure, I consulted with the sheriff’s department here and there on cases that mystified them. I also worked with my husband and a dozen others to form and support the White Guard, an organization attempting to unify and protect the magical world. We made some big gains when Matthew was able to convince most of the magical world that his nemesis was using blood magic to control people’s minds – including mine and my husband’s.
It was a sobering moment for us.
But mostly during that time, I grew a baby and took care of her. I always wanted children, maybe because I’m the oldest of nine and having kids around seemed natural.
Anastasia Blackwood turned one in mid-December, right around the time my youngest siblings, Michael and Maya, both turned two. Honestly, I would have preferred to have two separate parties – or even three – to give each child his or her due attention, but my mom wasn’t up to it. She wasn’t up to much anymore, including party planning, so it fell to me and Juliana, seventeen now and pretty much already an adult. The last two years had aged her, as the responsibility for raising Michael and Maya fell heavily upon her shoulders.
The day started normally enough. Juliana, with Michael and Maya in tow, arrived at my place several hours before the party to decorate. My two best friends, Madison and Kaitlin, came to help too, the latter with a one-year-old son of her own. Madison, pregnant but not showing just yet, volunteered to keep the toddlers out of trouble. “For practice,” she said, although we all knew she was doing us a favor. I’d return that favor as soon as she realized how badly moms need breaks sometimes.
Yeah, I know, babies and birthday parties and maybe life really does end when you get married. Or at least loses its sex appeal. Although for the record, I still found Evan as sexy as ever. I mean, the man could drive me to orgasm with a single, magical kiss.
Damn, but it was addictive.
Speaking of Evan, he wasn’t invited to the setup party. Officially, because it was a ladies’ only event, but unofficially, because he wanted a Star Wars theme and I didn’t. I humored him by hanging a banner reading “May the Force Be With You” under the banner reading “Happy Birthday” in bright, colorful letters.
Once our large living room was more or less ready for the party, I left Kaitlin and Madison blowing up balloons while Juliana and I disappeared into the kitchen to finish decorating the cakes. Yes, cakes. If they couldn’t each have their own party, they would at least get their own cake.
Anastasia’s cake was done already – a three-dimensional fairy tale castle complete with turrets and flags and a fire-breathing dragon wrapped around one of the towers. The fire breath was an illusion, compliments of Scott Lee, Evan’s cousin and Madison’s soon-to-be husband. Real fire would have melted the icing.
“You put a moat monster in!” Juliana exclaimed when she saw it. The moat, constructed of blue jello, did indeed contain a gummy worm “monster.”
I nodded, then glanced guiltily at the two undecorated sheet cakes I had baked “just in case.” Mom had sworn she would make cakes for the twins, but I couldn’t trust her these days.
“Did Mom bake a cake?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Juliana bit her lip. “She said she would; I reminded her when I left that she needed to make the cakes, but it was a bad morning.”
“What happened?” I asked, almost afraid of hearing the answer.
“She was drunk.”
“I thought you threw out all the alcohol!”
“We did. We either missed some, or she’s brewing it in her potions lab.”
“Damn.” I stared at the plain sheet cakes, then looked at the castle that had taken me many, many hours to complete. Compared to the works of art my mom had created for us on our birthdays growing up, it probably looked pathetic, but it would be awe-inspiring next to a flat rectangle with icing.
“Do you have more icing prepared?” Juliana asked.
“I bought plenty of extra ingredients, so I can make more. That’ll give us a chance to think up decorating schemes.” I moved toward my oversized stainless-steel refrigerator as I spoke and pulled out three bowls of icing, each topped with a cold, damp towel. Then I started pulling bags and tips out of the decorating drawer.
“Do you think–” I started, then stopped myself. It was a horrible thought, one I couldn’t possibly give voice to.
“Do I think she’s coming at all?” Juliana asked, apparently reading my mind. Some sorcerers can do that, but not Juliana. Her gift is healing. “The thought crossed my mind. But Nicolas and Isaac said they’d drag her here if they had to.”
Nicolas was my next youngest sibling, currently twenty, and Isaac was just after Juliana, currently fourteen. With Nicolas and me out of the house – me married with a child of my own and Nicolas neck-deep in an intense apprenticeship – a lot of responsibility had fallen on both Juliana’s and Isaac’s shoulders. For that matter, Elena, eleven, Adam, eight, and Christina, five, were all growing up faster than they should have to. But as the two oldest at home, it was worst for Juliana and Isaac. My understanding was that Juliana took care of the kids, while Isaac took care of Mom.
Mom had simply never recovered from the blow of losing her husband, my father, almost two years earlier. His death had profoundly impacted all of us; I still thought about him and missed him. Making things particularly hard was the fact that we had unfinished business between us. What would he say if he knew I had married Evan, for instance? But the worst thing for me was knowing that the last words I said to my father were, “I hate you.”
I didn’t mean it. I wanted to tell him that, desperately.
“I swear she was getting better for a while,” Juliana said, tucking a long strand of dark hair behind an ear. She looked more like Dad, while I resembled Mom, but nobody had trouble believing we were sisters.
“You mentioned that.” I didn’t want to talk about Mom anymore, though. The day would be hard enough without churning up all the old hurt and betrayal. At one point, I thought I’d forgiven my mom, but sometime during her decline I’d changed my mind. Somehow, her refusal to pull herself together for the sake of two helpless babies was worse than anything she’d ever done to me – and she’d once magically disowned me.
Dad had gone along with her plans; that was part of the unfinished business. But for now, I had to focus on those he left behind.
“So Maya and Michael,” I said, eager to change the subject. “What are they into?” I’m afraid I didn’t spend much time with my youngest brother and sister, not even when I visited the rest of the family. I usually spent those visits dealing with Mom.
“Well, Maya’s a summoner and Michael’s a fire starter,” Juliana said.
“We did gifts for their first birthday,” I pointed out. “And we’ve known Michael was a fire starter since before he was born.”
Technically, we didn’t know for sure Michael was the fire starter until after he was born – we didn’t even know there were twins – but the fact that Mom had set things on fire while she was pregnant confirmed the existence of a fire starter in her womb. Pregnant moms often channel their unborn baby’s gifts. Anastasia had saved my life before I even knew she was there.
“Believe me, I still know Michael’s a fire starter every day. His gift keeps slipping its binding; it used to be every few months, but lately it’s just about weekly. I’m terrified the house is going to burn down around us.”
“Have you asked Nicolas for help?”
“He did the last binding himself. Clark Eagle even helped, although Nicolas is getting really good after two years of study.”
“We might need to call a full circle,” I said. “I know Evan would help.”
Juliana shook her head. She never said it outright, but I often got the impression she didn’t approve of Evan. Almost two years after the feud between our families had officially ended, was it possible she still harbored some kind of resentment for them? Of course, they had cursed her bald – apparently permanently. Months of research and experiments had failed to undo that nasty bit of magic, compliments of Amanda Lee, who had never shared her secret. Juliana currently wore an excellent wig that matched her old hair so perfectly it was hard to remember it wasn’t real. At least for me. Might be easier for her, all things considered.
I glanced at my watch. We had about an hour and a half to get the two cakes ready. “Okay, gifts it is. But we need to come up with a better concept for summoning than Mom did last year. Most people thought the girl surrounded by toys represented greed.”
“And then they thought the fire was wrath.” Juliana chuckled. “Okay, let’s just do Dora and Diego.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. It’s their favorite show. They watch it every day.”
We set to work, using pictures from the Internet, skills honed from years of cake decorating, and a bit of magic – provided by Juliana. I still didn’t have a drop of magic, although I channeled some of Anastasia’s because she was nursing. I didn’t use it, though. That had been a hard decision, but Mom’s breakdown had made it easier. She’d spent her life having child after child, making sure she was either pregnant or nursing, so she could continue to channel the magic that had been stolen from her as a teen. While she hadn’t been a bad mom until recently, she had always chosen to have children for the wrong reasons.
I would not become my mother. Not on this. So I didn’t use magic, even when I had it available. I did some ritual meditation to keep it from building up and overpowering me, and that was it.
As we worked, I kept sensing Juliana wanted to say something. After the third time she paused, opened her mouth slightly, then shook her head, I asked her what was going on.
“Nothing,” she mumbled.
“Juliana. Something’s going on. You can tell me anything.”
She bit her lip and looked up from her work. For a moment, I wasn’t sure she would tell me, and I felt a pang somewhere in the region of my heart. Had I been such a bad big sister that she couldn’t even talk to me? I knew I wasn’t around as much as I used to be, but I was married and had a baby of my own. And she never asked for more. Never. If she did … well, I’d find a way.
“I’m worried about Maya,” Juliana said suddenly.
I glanced at the Dora cake, which was nearly done. It only needed the birthday message artfully applied across the top.
“Why?” I asked.
“She screams whenever she’s separated from Michael, even for a moment. It’s weird, and it can’t be healthy. It doesn’t even matter who else is with her, not even me.” Juliana’s voice was full of hurt and bewilderment; she clearly saw herself as the twins’ mom. Maybe in some ways she was, but I wondered if the twins had a healthy, secure attachment to anyone.
I didn’t say any of that to Juliana. It wouldn’t help.
“She loves her brother,” I said carefully. “I’m sure it’s just a phase.”
But I could tell Juliana wasn’t convinced. Neither was I. Having recently read every book on parenting I could get my hands on, I thought it very likely that the whole family was having some serious emotional fallout from Dad’s death and Mom’s subsequent depression. Maya didn’t have a parent; Juliana might want to fill that role, but maybe she couldn’t.
We finished the cakes just as the first guest arrived – Evan’s mom, Laura Blackwood, who didn’t like me but who doted on her granddaughter. Soon, the house was full of guests, mostly from the Blackwood side of the family.
“Where’s Mom?” I murmured to Juliana after thirty minutes.
Juliana was on her phone, thumbs working overtime. “Elena says Isaac and Nicolas are trying to revive her. She passed out.” Juliana glanced at the twins, then at me, and I could tell she was torn between going to help and staying for her twins.
“Stay,” I said. “Nicolas and Isaac can handle it.”
Juliana nodded doubtfully, then pasted a smile to her face and went to lift Michael into her arms. Maya let out a shriek that threatened to turn violent before Juliana scooped her up too. Huh. That was a bit extreme. How had I never noticed before?
Two strong arms came around me from behind, pinning me against a hard, warm, familiar chest. I melted against it, letting myself find strength and comfort in a loving embrace.
“Nice party,” Evan murmured in my ear. “What’s wrong?”
“Mom’s passed out drunk.”
He cursed under his breath.
“Do you think the Blairs could help her somehow?” I asked. The Blairs were a family of mind mages, and it was a mark of desperation that I mentioned them at all. I didn’t trust mind mages, and I already owed Matthew ten years of service for a favor he’d done.
“I don’t know, but let’s try to think of something else first. Come on, it’s time to cut the cake.”
We went through the motions of the party: cutting cake, singing songs, opening presents, and playing games. Nicolas arrived an hour late, with the rest of my brothers and sisters, but without Mom. Nobody said anything, but there was tension in the air. Everyone noticed.
The party lasted for three hours, well past the kids’ nap times. The adults simply went on without them until finally, everyone had left except for my siblings and two best friends. I sensed that none of them wanted to go home, and I didn’t push them.
Finally, shortly before dinnertime, the doorbell rang. My heart leapt, thinking that Mom had shaken off her stupor and come after all. I dashed to the front door and flung it open, trying to decide if I should shake my mom or strangle her.
Sheriff David Adams stood on the other side of the threshold, hands in his pockets, a familiar look of tension on his face. I’d seen that expression before – he wore it when a situation made him feel he was in over his head.
“We’ve got a big problem down by the lake,” he said without preamble. “I need you.”
Christine Amsden has been writing science fiction and fantasy for as long as she can remember. She loves to write and it is her dream that others will be inspired by this love and by her stories. Speculative fiction is fun, magical, and imaginative but great speculative fiction is about real people defining themselves through extraordinary situations. Christine writes primarily about people and it is in this way that she strives to make science fiction and fantasy meaningful for everyone.
At the age of 16, Christine was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, a condition that affects the retina and causes a loss of central vision. She is now legally blind, but has not let this slow her down or get in the way of her dreams. (You can learn more here.)
Christine currently lives in the Kansas City area with her husband, Austin, who has been her biggest fan and the key to her success. They have two beautiful children, Drake and Celeste.